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Caltrain electrification grant approved by feds

Casey Tolan and Katy Murphy, THE MERCURY NEWS

The grant had divided California’s congressional delegation. Republicans opposed it, arguing it would help the state’s high-speed rail project while Democrats vocally supported the grant.

In a stunning reversal, the Federal Transit Administration said Monday that it will approve a $647 million grant to electrify Caltrain tracks, nearly doubling capacity on the overburdened San Jose to San Francisco commute route.
The approval comes after months of delays and worries by Caltrain officials and Bay Area leaders that the Trump administration would cancel the grant. If the funding hadn’t been approved by June 30, the $2 billion track electrification project would have lost key construction contracts.
The electrification work will mean faster and more reliable trains on a 51-mile stretch of the Caltrain corridor along the Peninsula, offering more than 110,000 rides per day, up from 60,000. The project will also create 10,000 jobs in California and around the country. The first electric trains are expected to be in service by early 2021, if not sooner, and construction on the project should start in 60 to 90 days.
“This news, quite clearly, is electrifying,” said Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino. “This is all the major holidays wrapped into one with a beautiful Caltrain bow around it.”
Bay Area officials have been advocating for the electrification project for decades, and the federal grant was near its final approval under the Obama administration. But after Donald Trump took office, Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao declined to sign off on it.
Read more at: Caltrain electrification grant approved by feds

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SMART revises passenger rail service after facing criticism 

Facing public backlash over its announced schedule for passenger rail service, Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit scrambled to release a revised version Tuesday — one that officials say shortens wait times during peak commute hours, though gaps of an hour or more still exist during some of those periods.
The updated schedule — released less than a week after SMART unveiled the earlier version — still includes 34 trips on weekdays, with the same number of trains. It shortened some 90-minute waits to hourlong gaps and retained 30-minute intervals across most of the peak hours of operation.
The additional arrival and departure times are geared to appeal to more commuters, planned to be the rail line’s key group of users. The new timetable, for example, includes a new 7:30 a.m. southbound departure from downtown Santa Rosa and a new 5:29 p.m. departure northbound from San Rafael.
The adjusted timetable resulted from work over the weekend by SMART officials and representatives of regional transportation agencies following a deluge of complaints since last week on the rail agency’s social media sites. Debora Fudge, SMART’s board chairwoman and the mayor of Windsor, said it became clear that what the rail agency put out originally was not going to work.
Read more at: SMART revises passenger rail service after facing criticism | The Press Democrat

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Though shovels are ready, Trump officials delay grant for Caltrain upgrade

The railway shuttles 65,000 people a day between San Francisco and San Jose, its cars crammed with Silicon Valley workers tapping on sleek laptops and hoisting bikes into designated cars. But the signs of aging are unmistakable — 1980s control panels devoid of digital technology, the dusting of sea-green foam that has escaped from the seat cushions and settled on the floor.
All of that was supposed to change with the launch of a $2 billion upgrade, underwritten in part by a $647 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration approved days before President Barack Obama left office. But then the Trump administration arrived, and within a month the FTA informed Caltrain that it was “deferring a decision.”
The delay has infuriated California officials, who had hoped the long-awaited project would mesh nicely with President Trump’s call for fresh spending on the nation’s aging infrastructure. But in this era of distrust and polarization, an otherwise popular initiative has become a GOP target, seen as a pet project of the former president.
The move to shelve the grant is reverberating far beyond the Golden State, alarming officials in cities across the nation. The White House wants to slice nearly $1 billion from the transportation budget this year, with the cuts aimed primarily at urban transit projects such as the Purple Line in Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Read more at: Though shovels are ready, Trump officials delay grant for Caltrain upgrade – The Washington Post

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SMART to build second commuter rail station in Petaluma

A deal stuck last month between commuter and freight rail agencies could lead to the development of an east Petaluma rail station and a downtown mixed use project.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority, which is preparing to launch commuter train service from Santa Rosa to San Rafael later this year, reached the deal with the North Coast Railroad Authority, which operates freight trains on the same stretch of tracks.
As part of the sweeping operating agreement, the NCRA agreed to vacate the downtown rail yard adjacent to the train station on Lakeville Street. NCRA had an easement to park freight trains on the property, complicating SMART’s efforts to develop the land.
“It’s a positive step and a victory for Petaluma,”said Supervisor David Rabbitt, a SMART board member. “It does clear the way for things to move forward.”
With NCRA ceding its interest in the property, SMART is now free to pursue a deal with a developer to sell the downtown land in exchange for construction of a second Petaluma commuter rail platform at Corona Road. The long envisioned second station was promised to voters who approved the commuter rail agency in 2008, but was removed from the initial plans as the agency faced budget uncertainty during the recession.
Read more at: SMART deal could lead to second Petaluma station | Petaluma Argus Courier |

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Santa Rosa unveils plan to revamp city’s bus routes


If approved by the City Council next month, the changes would likely take place in November, [city transit planner Rachel Ede] said.

Santa Rosa hopes to boost flagging bus ridership numbers by making its CityBus service faster and more convenient along the city’s busiest corridors.
But it also wants to maintain a system that offers convenient service for residents across the city, including lower-density neighborhoods.
Just how daunting a challenge it is to strike a balance between those two goals became clear Tuesday when city officials unveiled their nearly complete plan to revamp the city’s bus routes.
Bus riders, many of whom rely on bus service as their primary source of transportation, are distressed by some of the changes.
Click here for ReImagine CityBus final recommendations
Read more at: Santa Rosa unveils plan to revamp city’s bus routes | The Press Democrat

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Congress on track to approve SMART funding for Larkspur ferry link

The planned rail link to a Marin County ferry terminal, envisioned as a key part of a new SMART passenger rail service set to debut in 2016, appears to have secured the funding it needs to advance.
Congress is expected to approve a $1.1 trillion federal spending bill as early as Friday morning that includes $20 million for the rail link from downtown San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal.Officials with the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority had been working with regional partners for three years to acquire the federal funding, which adds to $20 million already secured for the Larkspur project through local toll money.
“The extension from San Rafael to Larkspur is going to happen. That’s a big deal for the system,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
Connecting rail passengers to regional transportation hubs is a critical component of the SMART project, which initially is set to debut in late 2016 along a 42-mile segment from near the Sonoma County Airport to downtown San Rafael.
Read more at: Congress on track to approve SMART funding for | The Press Democrat

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SMART settlement paves way for bike, pedestrian path

Cycling advocates say a last-minute agreement hammered out with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials will prioritize a bike and pedestrian path that voters demanded in 2008 when they approved construction of the commuter rail line.
The agreement, brokered by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, calls for establishing a list of higher priority pathway segments and identifying funding sources for those projects.
Cycling advocates had been threatening to sue SMART over a section of pathway planned in San Rafael, a dispute that more generally speaks to concerns the rail agency is failing to meet its obligations to build the promised network. The agreement, for now, appears to have addressed those concerns.
“Overall, this is a very, very positive development. It increases hope that the path will actually be built,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
Read more at: SMART settlement paves way for bike, pedestrian path | The Press Democrat

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SF Bay Area commuters make big shift away from cars

Workers in the San Francisco Bay Area made the nation’s most dramatic shift from commuting via automobile to using alternative transportation between 2006 and 2013, according to a new Census Bureau report.
Commuting by private car in the densely populated region, including carpooling, dropped from 73.6 percent of workers in 2006 to 69.8 percent seven years later, giving it the nation’s third highest level of alternative commuting.
Commuters in the New York City-centered metropolitan area were least likely to use private cars to get to their jobs in 2013, but even so, a majority – 56.9 percent – still did. Ithaca, NY, had the second lowest use of cars, 68.7 percent, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area.
Except for No. 7 Boston and No. 13 Chicago, other regions with relatively low auto commute rates were small communities, many of them dominated by colleges and universities, such a Boulder, Colo., and Corvallis, Ore.
Overall, 76.4 percent of the nation’s workers drove alone to get to work in 2013, the Census Bureau’s survey found, followed by those who carpooled, 9.4 percent; used public transit, 5.2 percent; worked at home, 4.4 percent; walked, 2.8 percent; or used “other means of travel,” 1.3 percent.
Bicycling was the least popular method of commuting, used by just six-tenths of one percent of workers.The Census Bureau report did not include a state-by-state breakdown of commuting modes, but a 2006 report by the Public Policy Institute of California said that 71.8 percent of California commuters drove alone to their jobs. Including carpools, California’s auto commuting rate was 86.4 percent, 1.5 percentage points below the national rate.
The PPIC report said that San Francisco alone, excluding the rest of the Bay Area, by far, had the lowest rate of auto commuting, with just 40.5 of it workers driving alone. With carpooling, San Francisco’s rate climbed to 51.3 percent.In Los Angeles, meanwhile, 85.5 percent of workers commuted by private car, either alone or with others, roughly the same rate as the state as a whole.
Source: SF Bay Area commuters make big shift away from cars | The Sacramento Bee

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Santa Rosa plans to revamp bus service 

Facing a sharp drop in bus ridership, Santa Rosa is hoping to win back riders by redesigning the bus system to be more convenient and efficient, especially along the city’s busiest travel corridors.
After months of surveys, focus groups and workshops, the yearlong effort dubbed “Reimagining CityBus” heads to the City Council on Tuesday for its input on which priorities should guide the long-range redesign.
Most cities revamp their bus routes every 10 years to make sure they are adjusting to the needs of the changing community. By that measure, changes in Santa Rosa are long overdue.
“We haven’t done a really complete review of the CityBus network in 25 years,” said Rachel Ede, city transit planner. “A lot has changed in Santa Rosa in 25 years.”
Read more at: Santa Rosa plans to revamp bus service | The Press Democrat

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Bay Area’s disjointed public transit network inspires a call for harmony 

Patricia Leigh Brown, THE NEW YORK TIMES

SPUR report transit map
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Commission, SPUR Report

There is much to relish about the Bay Area, from the intoxicating landscape to the blissful lack of humidity.
One thing is not perfect, though: the daunting nature of the region’s public transportation system, a patchwork of more than 20 operators spread across nine counties and 101 municipalities that have yet to spawn a cohesive map.
As housing costs here continue to escalate, with growing numbers of people moving farther afield in search of affordability, the disjointed nature of the region’s transportation fiefs, each with its own fare structures and nomenclature, has become the topic of increasingly intense debate among transportation policy experts.
A study released this year by SPUR, a Bay Area urban planning and policy think tank, encapsulated much of the public frustration on the subject and has been widely discussed on blogs and in public forums, including one at the venerable Commonwealth Club of California.
“Ninety percent of the people in the Bay Area are essentially tourists when it comes to transit,” said Ratna Amin, SPUR’s transportation policy director. “They don’t use it.”
The study recommends a variety of changes, from better trip-planning tools to smoother transfers. But there are roughly two dozen transit agencies in the region, and each operates and plans its system independently, with its own funding sources, which makes any uniform change difficult.
Read more at: Bay Area’s Disjointed Public Transit Network Inspires a Call for Harmony – The New York Times